We all can agree that BC’s Okanagan Valley is a special place. Some of the things noted by winebc.org about the Okanagan Valley is “The Okanagan Valley lies in a rain shadow, between the Coastal and Monashee mountain ranges. This results in very low annual average rainfall. The area between Oliver and the US border is the northernmost tip of the Sonora Desert, which begins on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico.
Summers are generally very hot: average temperatures in July and August are warmer than in the Napa Valley. Summer daytime temperatures can reach 40°C, and are often above 30°C for several days in a row.”
This combination of dry climate, hot summer temperatures along with cool nights, let’s us produce premium grapes, full-flavoured, together with higher levels of acidity. With this type of perfect climate, dry and warm, there is not a great fungal disease problem in the Valley. With this climate, one could ask, why can’t the Okanagan Valley go completely organic? This question has been posed and proposed by Stephen Cipes at Summerhill Pyramid Winery in Kelowna and others, who are passionate community
leaders hoping to create a comprehensive organic network.
I had a chance during the Vancouver International Wine Festival 2017 to briefly interview Ezra Cipes, son of Stephen Cipes, about the 2020 Vision & Declaration for an Organic Okanagan Valley in BC.
My Interview with Ezra Cipes
Can you tell me what your and your father’s vision of the organic wine industry in BC is?
It is more than just the wine industry. It is a vision of the whole region to be an organic region. As my dad says it is to become a diamond in the emerald planet. It is an initiative called the 2020 Vision and is led by a Declaration that everyone is invited to read and sign, at organicokanagan.com.
Yes, I read it and I wasn’t sure if it was just meant for people living in the Okanagan to sign it. Can I sign it?
Robert Bateman has signed it. Dr. David Suzuki has signed it. Anyone can sign it. It’s not an instrument to lobby government. It’s an instrument to build on the vision, for people to understand the vision, and to broadcast the vision. It is part of an initiative called the 2020 Vision for an Organic Okanagan. Our goal is for an organic Okanagan 3 years from now. It is not just for the wine industry but all the farming, landscaping, municipalities and schools, and our own gardens and lawns. We really don’t need synthetic chemicals; we made this transition years ago at Summerhill. To us, it is natural and normal. We realize there are lots of people with an attitude that think these synthetic chemicals are needed. Frankly, there is a different relationship with the world around you when you move to be organic. It does require I think a deeper relationship. If you have a problem with a pest or disease, you can’t just go to the store and buy a solution (if you are organic). You need to understand the ecosystem. You need to work with the ecosystem and build a living soil. You need to build a place where there is a biodiversity of flora and fauna around you.
Give me an example of what you do in the vineyard to make your soil very healthy.
We make a lot of compost and compost teas as well. We have an 80-acre property with 20 acres set aside as a wildlife preserve: wetland and dryland reserve. Even the way we mow the lawn and take care of our ground cover is different. We let things go to flower and seed, living out their life cycle and support all the bugs and bees and everything else in the vineyard. The grapes are healthier for it; the roots go deep and they get their own nutrients from the soil. We don’t have any problems with leaf hoppers anymore. We haven’t since we adopted this new management program. We used to use yellow sticky tape for the leaf hoppers.
So people who are using traditional, not organic farming have vines that don’t go as deep?
I can’t say for sure. When you use the synthetic fertilizers it kills the microbiology of the soil and your plants become dependent on giving them nutrition. When you use herbicides it is the same thing. You create a sort of desert, and that is when the vines are vulnerable to real infestations, and you have to treat them with things like pesticides. People think that they really need them (pesticides). What if I get an infestation? You have to change your relationship with the world around you. It is a big-picture consciousness-changing exercise.
Can you see the 2020 vision expand across BC?
The Okanagan Valley is a desert in the south and semi-arid in the north, so that makes it easy to be organic. We don’t have very difficult fungal disease pressures. The Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island have more moisture. I’ve never grown grapes or food there. I’m sure it’s possible, but I know the Okanagan Valley. The Okanagan is a bit more continental and it gets very cold in the winter and lots of pests cannot survive in the winter so can’t live in the Okanagan. It’s one of the easiest places in the world to be organic, so we can be a leader in organic in the world.
Have you been able to quantify the price for a bottle of wine produced organically vs conventional methods?
It is dependent on so many things. The secret of making beautiful wine is making a balanced wine where the vines are in harmony with the earth, and the weather and climate and the water. You get a balanced crop. If you have a very nutrient-rich clay soil with lots of water-holding capacity, you can probably harvest economic yields at high quality. Some people may say that they harvest at 1.5 tons/acre and that is what makes it good. But that’s not what makes it good. What makes it good is balance, so if you have very nutrient-depleted soils, that’s mainly sand, then maybe 1.5 tons/acre is all you can get that is good. If you have a clay soil you can make beautiful wines with whatever it is at a higher tons/acre. At Summerhill, we have silty limey soil. We add compost and we average 3.5-4 tons/acre, and for us that is reasonable. That is in balance and it is economic. To make great wine you invest in something; your oak program or whatever. We invest in the vineyard, in the labour to make sure the canopy is in good shape, that we are not getting fungal diseases, and in being very thoughtful about the environment. We make a lot of compost.
In 3 years from now when people sign on, how do we monitor that they are following organic principles?
Looking forward, I don’t think this is the kind of program about rules. It is about sharing an idea and getting a vision.
Going organic vs being certified organic are 2 different things.
There is the Declaration, and the idea, and some on-the-ground initiatives that we are doing to help with outreach and education and facilitation. There are many people who farm quite sensibly and sustainably. There are smart farmers and grape growers that are not certified organic. We are putting together a committee to help people understand the paperwork and certification process. Certifiers are not allowed to do that as it is a conflict of interest; they can only audit. We can educate them as we are not certifying anyone. We can help them with their paperwork.
We are certified by Demeter, which I’d say is the most intensive certification. We also are getting another certification, which is the easiest, called Certified Naturally Grown (CNG). Organic is a protected term, regulated by the government. If you are not certified you can’t use the word, but many people do, and it bothers me as it reduces the meaning of the word. CNG is a lesser certification in that there is no need for a paper-trail, the fees are nominal, and it is peer-reviewed BUT the standard is the same as Certified Organic. Paperwork and fees are a big block for many people to join Certified Organic. CNG people can talk about their sustainability and organic produce. Once we get certified, as we are not inspected yet, we can audit other people.
Is CNG a North American certification?
I’m not sure, but it is based in the States. It is really grass-roots and is good for people who are smaller farmers, selling in their community, or province. People who don’t need Organic certification, but is nice to have something real to tell people about their farming in a respectful way. I think it is an important step. I see a lot of potential candidates which could help the organic movement grow. Once they are in CNG, if they want to sell outside of the province, it is just one more step to be Certified Organic. You already know the program. You are doing it, so it is just the paperwork to fill in.
Thank you Ezra for spending the time to talk to me about the 2020 Vision & Declaration for an Organic Okanagan Valley in BC.